By Benjamin Harrison (@NimajnebKH)
One is tempted - given the Seattle Sounders' dramatic recovery of a seemingly lost 2016 season to seize a playoff berth, and, ultimately, the MLS Cup - to take those last 14 games (plus the playoffs) as the best sign of what the team has to offer in the coming season. But with new acquisitions bolstering the bench, players developing in key positions, others returning from injury, and still others adjusting adjusting to the league, the team could easily see improvements over the championship campaign. Designated Player Clint Dempsey was available for only four games of Seattle's stretch run thanks to a heart condition, but is now cleared to play. Brad Evans struggled with injuries throughout the last half of the season. Young starters Jordan Morris and Cristian Roldan are a year older and more experienced. Left back Joevin Jones is entering his physical prime. Even if the Sounders have not put the dire days fully behind them, this is a team that should expect to make the playoffs and contend in the postseason.
2016 in review
The abrupt preseason departure of striker Obafemi Martins took the sting out of Seattle's offense. For the first half of the season, Jordan Morris demonstrated a strong ability to get in behind opposing defenses but struggled to convert those chances. Dempsey and Andreas Ivanschitz were dangerous in spots, but struggled to account for the loss (relative to 2015) of offensive possession in the absence of Martins and Marco Pappa. DP forward Nelson Haedo Valdez found himself unable to either create goals or score himself, thanks to a combination of injury, poor luck (a staggering -4.43 G-xG), and poorer performance. In even game states, Sigi Schmid's Sounders couldn't reliably score (excluding a red card and backup-roster assisted 5-0 drubbing of Dallas, Seattle scored 0.79 goals per game under Schmid vs. 1.71 in their last 14 regular season games), culminating in an embarrassing 3-0 loss to Sporting Kansas City on July 24th that sent Schmid - the only head coach the MLS Sounders had known in 7+ seasons of near-continuous success (if lacking in MLS Cup playoff victories) - from the sideline to the TV analyst desk.
Midseason coaching replacements are generally not a sound strategy for turning around a single season. Former USL Sounder player and head coach Brian Schmetzer wiped out the "interim" label by becoming only the second of 14 midseason hires in the last five seasons to make the playoffs (of these, Schmetzer's +1.00ppg rates highest). Schmetzer had three new arrivals to help him out in DP attacking midfielder Nicolas Lodeiro, fellow Uruguayan midfielder (and ex-Sounder) Alvaro Fernandez, and Panamanian CB Roman Torres (recovered from an ACL tear that ended his 2015 campaign after only a handful of games). Fernandez struggled to find the form he'd possessed before with Seattle as Fredy Montero's sidekick, but Torres stepped in as a solid (nigh-immovable) starter alongside Chad Marshall, and Lodeiro seized a primary creator role with a performance that earned him Newcomer of the Year honors in just a third of a season (albeit the most important third).
Nevertheless, one shouldn't attribute all of Seattle's recovery to Lodeiro and Torres. Schmetzer resurrected Valdez as a late-game defense and possession-minded forward, and was rewarded with key starting performances in the playoffs with Morris pulled back to the wing. Tyrone Mears at right back played more conservatively under Shmetzer and showed modest improvement. The team committed fully to Roldan as the partner to Osvaldo Alonso in the defensive-midfield band of a 4-2-3-1, and the 21-year old turned in a performance that earned USMNT buzz by the time the playoffs came around. The Sounders picked up 28 points in their final 14 regular season games with a +8 GD, despite injury concerns for Ivanschitz, Evans, and (most of all) Dempsey - a level of success beyond the measure of Lodeiro (for all that he was exactly the player Seattle needed at that time).
Late-2015 acquisitions Ivanschitz and Valdez are gone, along with Mears. CB Zach Scott (886 minutes, 9 starts) and FW/MF Herculez Gomez (842 minutes, 9 starts) have retired after playing significant minutes (significantly poor, for the most part) from the bench in 2015. Swedish CM Erik Friberg has headed back overseas, only to be replaced by somewhat-more-defensively minded Swedish CM Gustav Svensson (courtesy of the Chinese Super League's reduction in international roster spots), thereby preserving the balance of the universe.
GM Garth Lagerway exchanged allocation money for two experienced MLS attacking players deemed surplus to their 2016 clubs in FW Will Bruin and MF Harrison Shipp. Together with Fernandez, Shipp and Bruin replace the attacking responsibilities of Valdez and Ivanschitz, although it is not yet clear which player will start alongside locks Morris, Dempsey, and Lodeiro. Bruin offers a more physical presence up top than many of Seattle's other options, as well as a solid-if-unspectacular goalscoring option when Morris is unavailable. However, he is not a particularly good option as a target forward, exhibiting a mediocre success rate in aerial challenges and lacking great skill in possession. Shipp struggled to fit in with the counterattacking style of the Montreal Impact in 2016, and questions persist as to his stamina over a full 90 minutes. Nevertheless, his skill in possession and creative vision is the best style match to Lodeiro on the team. He will be a good option for games in which the Uruguayan is unavailable, or as a starter in the ideal attacking four if he can find ways to effectively share field space with two players, in Dempsey and Lodeiro, who enjoy positional flexibility. Svensson, Bruin, and Shipp appear well-chosen to bolster team depth with rotational talent in case of injury and national-team callups. The vacant DP slot that once held Valdez will very likely be considered for another midseason acquisition, targeting either a creative wing attacker or more of a second striker, depending on Dempsey's health.
Stefan Frei returns for his third season with Seattle following a 2016 that earned him a call to USMNT camp. The veteran has mediocre command of his box and can be shaky in distribution, but has very strong shot-stopping skills, as people will remember from his MVP performance in the MLS Cup Final (and as is modestly supported by a -1.18 GA-xGA on the year). Youngster Tyler Miller is the primary backup and will likely continue to take the lead in Open Cup games.
Jones at LB and Marshall/Torres in the middle remain unchanged from the 2016 Schmetzer Sounders. The CB pairing has the physical tools, experience and skill to cover most MLS attackers closely marked, but are vulnerable to speed. Jones provides excellent support to the offense, but can be caught out of position on defense or beaten by skill 1v1. His strong speed allows him to make up for many mistakes. Tony Alfaro graduates to 3rd/4th center back following a decent rookie campaign in 2016 in which he also demonstrated the ability to fill as a stay-at-home left back in a pinch. Svensson has past experience as a CB as well as at DM. Mears' departure at right back leaves Brad Evans as the heir apparent, moving over from about 1.5 years as a respectable starter at CB, though injuries have largely kept him out of preseason matches thus far. Evans has rarely played RB in MLS, but his past play in right midfield and his occasional fullback time with the USMNT suggest he is more than capable of holding down the offensive and defensive responsibilities of the position, respectively. Evans and the team will need to determine what balance of offense and defense allows him to stay healthy and effective, but Jones' emphasis on attack on the other flank allows for a relatively defensive RB. Third-year player Oniel Fisher will challenge for minutes at RB and can cover defensively as a backup LB.
Osvaldo Alonso (9 defensive actions per game), at 31 seemed revitalized in his DM role. 2016 was one of his healthiest and most productive seasons with the Sounders (32 starts, a tied-for-career-high 3 goals, and a career-high 4 assists). Roldan's continued development (5 defensive actions per game) may have played a role in Alonso's resurgence - since the departure of Servando Carrasco in 2013, Alonso's partners in CM have rarely had the defensive range to cover speedier attackers running at the backline with space. Roldan doesn't have Alonso's tackling ability or elite pace, but he has a great 90-minute motor and enough speed and strength to catch and inhibit most dribblers. This gives Alonso the freedom to advance farther forward and contribute to the possession game, in addition to his defensive strength. Alonso is not a particularly creative player, and his long shooting is mostly wasteful (though he managed to improve his accuracy last year), but his late runs around the box can be goal-dangerous. Roldan is a legitimate supporting creative threat on through-balls, and exhibits great tenacity (about once a game, you'll see Roldan take possession in traffic and ride out two or three blatant fouls on the dribble, either to alleviate pressure of jump-start an attack - this strength against MLS physicality and better quickness in decision making define Roldan's progression from promising rookie to quality starter). Svensson promises to back up the defensive and short-passing game of either starter.
Nico Lodeiro combines whole-field vision and passing with endless running and a dangerous left foot. His xAp96 of 0.37 rated second in the league in 2016, behind Mauro Diaz. Clint Dempsey acts as a withdrawn forward in the 4-2-3-1 but will habitually drop deep to find the ball. His touch and skill on the ball allows him to hold possession against most defenders, remains a significant scoring threat, and combines good attacking vision with a willingness "try shit." The third attacking midfielder role may be filled situationally: Shipp, as an additional creative infielder with a penchant for cutting inside; Fernandez, as a somewhat slower winger with decent shooting, short passing, and off-the-ball movement; youngster Aaron Kovar, who showed promise in 2016 prior to injuring his shoulder, offering more width and a cross-heavy game.
Jordan Morris' pace and timing regularly beat MLS defenders, and he wins still more chances with a willingness to body-up with good strength and a low center of gravity against more physical defenders. He has decent touch and accuracy in short passing. The main gaps in his game are a strong preference for the right foot and questionable decision making when in on goal (though a -1.09 G-xG suggests this problem evened out over the season). One season or another, he'll work those issues out to the point that he looks too good for this league. Bruin's past experience as a respectable scorer for Houston makes him a valuable, if expensive, second forward expected to pick up 1000-1500 minutes through rotation and selective use.
2016 left unanswered the question of just how reliant Seattle is on Nico Lodeiro. The injury history of Marshall (concussions), Torres (ACL), and Evans (knee, calf, and general Evans-ness) along the backline also suggests some vulnerability to poor luck. Barring catastrophe, the floor lies somewhere around the 2009-2015 Seattle precedent of a playoff-bound team. Lodeiro's availability and ability to build on 2016 will likely measure the strength of Seattle's contention for the Supporters' Shield and a repeat MLS Cup.